by Chidem Kurdas
Gene Callahan’s incisive post and the absorbing discussion that it generated here on ThinkMarkets can be taken as support for a Hayekian rather than a Hobbesian framework, not the least because by starting with Hayek, you can get to a substantive answer to Hobbes.
Gene, with his usual razor-sharp logic, points out that “if Hobbes is right, and without Leviathan we are in the ‘Warre of all against all,’ then the sovereign is justified in doing whatever is necessary to keep us out of that state.” Ergo, to argue that taxes are an unjust coercion, you have to show “that the State is not a necessary element of social order.”
After 82 comments and counting, there is no resolution. This all-or-nothing way of looking at government coercion always leads to a dead end. Of course most people fear a short, nasty, brutish etc. life, so they settle for Leviathan with all the trimmings. Put that way, there is no argument against the tax collector.
The real question – whether in the 1770s or now – is how to limit government. Admittedly, I write from one side of the divide Brian Doherty describes at Reason.com (cited by Gene)— “the no-compromise, anti-statist Rothbardians versus the more classical liberal, utilitarian, fallibilist, prudential Hayekians.”
Don’t know about the “fallibilist” part, but the prudential Hayekian principle “that in ordering our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion,” provides the unifying framework for evaluating collective action in all areas and finding how much of the coercion (and taxes) can be dispensed with.
For sure, this is a much messier mental exercise than deriving immutable first principles from abstract logic. There are no hard-and-fast rules, as Hayek noted (in The Road to Serfdom, p. 17, for instance). But, for a certain time and place, you can get a specific answer—say, that around 80% of taxes are unjust, because the activities they pay for are not necessary to avoid Hobbes’ “Warre of all against all.”
The participants in Gene’s discussion may not like a framework that gives you a changeable percentage rather than a rock-solid principle. But as Mr. Doherty says, that difference is an issue for the far future.
Of course, people disagree as to how much is necessary to keep social order. But most government activities have nothing to do this goal—Mario Rizzo recently outlined the results of dreadful, as well as wasteful, policies in three huge areas.